New Zealand Law Society - "Huge gaps" in environmental data

"Huge gaps" in environmental data

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The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, says "huge gaps" in environmental data and knowledge are bedevilling understanding of environment understanding.

Mr Upton has released a report, Focusing Aotearoa New Zealand's environmental reporting system, which reviews how New Zealand reports on the state of the environment.

The Commissioner is required to comment on the reports produced under the Environmental Reporting Act 2015. His report reports on a review of the reporting system after completion of the first full cycle of domain reports.

"My review does not, however, stop at the narrow boundaries of the Act. New Zealand’s environmental reporting system didn’t begin with the Act. It was, rather, designed to draw on existing data and knowledge, often generated for reasons quite separate from supporting a national environmental reporting system," he says.

"To say that we have designed a national environmental reporting system would be to overstate its coherence. It has been more a case of cobbling together what we have to hand, trying to solicit the willing engagement of a wide range of stakeholders and putting the hat around to try to plug some of the many gaps.

"If there is one thing that stands out from the first cycle of reports, it is the extent of what we don’t know about what’s going on with our environment. To some extent, that finding should come as no surprise. Understanding the world we inhabit is a work in progress and allocating resources to push back the boundaries of our ignorance will always involve making choices about how to expend scarce resources."

The Commissioner's review does not propose fundamental change to the current reporting system.

"It continues the incrementalism that has marked previous efforts to improve our environmental reporting. While amendments to the Act are proposed, they are in the nature of refinements," he says.

These include:

  • A clearer purpose.
  • A longer interval between full state of the environment (or synthesis) reports.
  • Expanding the reporting framework to include drivers and outlooks.
  • A refocusing of domain reports as commentaries on themes, based on those used in Environment Aotearoa 2019.
  • A requirement for Ministers to respond to state of the environment (or synthesis) reports.
  • Some minor adjustments to the respective roles of the Government Statistician and the Secretary for the Environment.

The essential architecture of the Act, including the statutory independence of the Government Statistician and Secretary for the Environment reponsible for issuing the reports, is preserved.

"In some ways, the most important recommendations in this report are those that relate to the prioritising and gathering of data in a consistent way. Despite attempts over more than two decades, no agreement has ever been reached on a set of core environmental indicators. This has to happen. Consistent and authoritative time series coupled with improved spatial coverage are essential if we are to detect trends. Only then will we be able to judge confidently whether we are making progress or going backwards – and get a handle on whether costly interventions are having an effect."